Computer science education in 1972 was a lot different from what it is today. Back then most computers were huge, expensive, intimidating and kept locked away in climate controlled rooms. Access was strictly limited. Few had seen one in person let alone used one. Taylor University where I was starting my undergraduate education had a small one. It was hear that I took my first computer science (programming really) course from a man by the name of R Waldo Roth. Wally to his friends and Prof Roth to his students. Though to be honest we students called him Wally amongst ourselves.
I had no idea what I was in for but this course changed the course of my life. Prof Roth saw the fun in computer science and he let us discover it as well. The school’s one computer was locked in a room and used for administrative purposes from 8 AM until 5PM (or maybe it was 6PM I forget) but after that the administrative disks (remember removable disks?) were locked up in a safe and students could use the computer for their assignments. In theory the computer lab closed at 10PM. In practice many of us in advanced courses or even with advanced interests were allowed after hours access. Prof Roth was the person who wrote the notes for security so we could stay. And for some of us, gave out keys to the science building as well. It was heady stuff back in those days.
He was always looking for learning experiences to share with students and not just in class. When the school was looking to buy a new computer (a huge investment) he invited students to attend the sales pitches made by the various computer companies. One day he handed me a large deck of punch cards and told me it was a graphics library for the drum plotter. There was no documentation and there were almost no comments in the deck. This made the library unusable. Would I figure it out and write up some documentation? He knew I was looking for challenges and this was right up my alley. I learned a lot from this experience with the importance of documentation and commenting code being just part of it.
As a teacher Prof Roth was fun, interesting and not afraid to admit that he didn’t know something. Though honestly he knew a lot and most of us knew so little. It was a different time. He was also willing to go the extra mile for his students. As a senior I wanted to take a Programming Languages course but it was not being offered that year. Prof Roth offered to let me take it as an independent study. His style of independent study (point me in a direction, get out of the way, and check that I was making progress) influenced how I later taught independent studies. It probably made me more agreeable to them as well. That course was a huge help to me in my career and I will always be grateful that I was able to take it under Wally’s tutelage.
As a teacher, especially in the early years when I was trying to figure out my own teaching style, I often thought “how would/did Wally teach this?” It was a help to me. He was engaging, open to any sort of question, and always available out of class time. He cared about every student.
More than 35 years after my college graduation I think about this teacher still. Yesterday Wally Roth went to be with the Lord. He’d been suffering with ALS for several years and the last month or so faded quickly. An inspiration to generations of computer science students is gone. I will miss him.